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LIRR might seek leniency on Positive Train Control mandate

The MTA's proposal comes three months after it acknowledged that its PTC system had already failed in several test simulations

A Long Island Rail Road train enters Jamaica

A Long Island Rail Road train enters Jamaica station on Aug. 5, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The MTA might ask the federal government to lower its standards in deciding if the Long Island Rail Road’s efforts so far in installing positive train control technology throughout its system meet federal requirements.

Debbie Chin, director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s positive train control project, said Monday that the agency is contemplating submitting a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration asking the agency to use “alternative” or “substitute criteria” in considering the progress made to date by the LIRR and sister railroad Metro-North in installing the technology on trains and along tracks.

The U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, passed after a deadly commuter train crash in California, mandates that all railroads have positive train control in place by Dec. 31, 2018, or risk heavy federal fines. But railroads can get a two-year extension if they meet minimum standards of compliance with the federal law. Those standards include having most equipment installed, most employees trained and demonstrating system operability on most passenger lines.

Chin said the FRA recently “introduced the option” of allowing railroads to propose their own criteria for coming into compliance. Chin suggested that, rather than have PTC operational on two lines by the end of 2018, as the LIRR was aiming to do, it could propose having it in place along a “representative segment” of just one line.

Chin said “there is no downside” to proposing the alternative criteria and that it will not slow down or distract from the MTA’s efforts to complete PTC installation on both railroads.

“We see it as a mitigation measure, as well as a way to get into compliance sooner,” Chin said. “This is really a security blanket . . . an insurance policy.”

Asked for comment, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman referred to an FRA document that said that the agency can consider substitute criteria “on a case-by-case basis, based on railroads’ written requests.”

The MTA’s proposal comes three months after it acknowledged that its PTC system has already failed in several test simulations, and that the agency does not expect to be able to have the technology fully in place by the end of 2018. A federal report issued earlier this year estimated that as many as two-thirds of commuter railroads in the U.S. were at risk of missing the Dec. 31 deadline.

PTC works by having radio transponders that are installed on tracks and on trains communicate with one another to automatically slow down or stop a train if it’s going too fast, is about to hit another train or violates a signal. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said PTC could have prevented several fatal train accidents in recent years, including the December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx that killed four people.

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Monday chided the MTA for continuing to come up with “excuses” for not completing its PTC project, which is being funded through a $1 billion federal loan that he helped secure.

“The MTA has had ample time and ample money to get this job done, so there is simply no excuse for Metro-North and LIRR not to fully implement positive train control by the end of this year,” Schumer said. “The technology is available and the money is in place . . . Metro-North and LIRR must pull out all the stops and work around the clock to complete the installation of this lifesaving technology.”

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